- A new study suggests endurance exercise is better for your overall heart health than resistance training.
- Endurance exercise can include activities like running or cycling.
- Experts stress the importance of mixing up your exercise routine.
In a new study, researchers analyzed the health effects of endurance exercise like biking or running and how it stacks up against resistance exercise like weightlifting. The verdict: Endurance exercise is better for your heart.
For the study, researchers looked at the mitochondrial activity of 30 people who were either assigned to an endurance training group, a resistance training group, or a control group.
What Is Endurance Exercise?
Also called aerobic exercise, endurance exercise includes activities that increase your breathing and heart rate such as walking, jogging, and cycling.
The mitochondria are called the powerhouse of cells and an increase in mitochondrial activity, which happens after exercise, can help improve your overall metabolic health. That can then lead to better levels of blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure. On the other hand, poor metabolic health increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.
All of the study participants were active before the trial began and did endurance exercises one to three times a week, and/or resistance exercises one to two times a week.
Participants ate a normal dinner the night before the study and were given a liquid breakfast before they exercised. The resistance exercise group did four sets each of leg presses and knee extensions, with two minutes of rest between the sets and five minutes of rest between the exercises.
The endurance exercise group was asked to do 45 minutes of cycling at a moderate pace. Each of the participants gave blood samples before and after their exercise, and their heart rate was monitored constantly.
Researchers found that the endurance exercises stimulated circulating levels of certain mitochondrial-derived peptides, which they state can foster good metabolic health. However, they did not find similar results from the resistance exercise. The October study was published in the Journal of Applied Physiology.
“This stresses it’s our own responsibility to be active and keep moving,” study co-author Ferdinand von Walden, MD, PhD, said in a press release. “This is one small piece that adds to the importance of being a physically active individual, so stay active.”
Current Exercise Recommendations
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that American adults try to move more and sit less during the day. The bottom line is that some physical activity is better than none.
The guidelines specifically recommend that adults aim to do at least 150 to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise and 75 to 150 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity.
The guidelines also suggest that adults do muscle-strengthening activities of “moderate or greater” intensity that work all major muscle groups at least two days a week. The American Heart Association (AHA) has similar recommendations, noting that adults should do moderate- to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity like resistance or weight training at least two days a week.
The AHA lists the following as moderate-intensity aerobic activities:
- Brisk walking (at least 2.5 miles per hour)
- Water aerobics
- Dancing (ballroom or social)
- Tennis (doubles)
- Biking slower than 10 miles per hour
These are a few examples of vigorous aerobic activity, per the AHA:
- Hiking uphill or with a heavy backpack
- Swimming laps
- Aerobic dancing
- Heavy yardwork like continuous digging or hoeing
- Tennis (singles)
- Cycling 10 miles per hour or faster
- Jumping rope
What This Means For You
Experts stress that exercise is important in any capacity. But, if you need to choose, it may be more beneficial to do more endurance exercise over resistance training. Ultimately, though, balance is key.
Resistance Training Is Still Important
Experts are mixed on the study results.
“It’s well documented that consistent physical activity and exercise is beneficial to one’s health,” Doug Sklar, a certified personal trainer and founder of PhilanthroFIT in New York City, tells Verywell. “[But] don’t confuse this to believe that resistance training is not an important component to improve or maintain one’s health.”
Jim Pivarnik, PhD, a professor of kinesiology at Michigan State University, agrees. “Absolutely people should engage in resistance exercise,” he tells Verywell. “If, for no other reason, activities of daily living—pushing, pulling, sweeping, carrying, lifting—all require muscular strength and endurance. This is particularly key as individuals age.”
Resistance training has a lot of perks, Sklar says, including keeping people mobile. “When performed correctly, resistance training can help to prevent or reduce back pain and help protect your joints from injury,” he says.
But Pivarnik says that endurance exercise may have an edge when it comes to being better for your health. “Most epidemiological evidence shows that endurance exercise is the best exercise for overall health,” he says. “A major, but certainly not the only reason, is the role it plays in enhancing the cardiovascular system, including the heart.”
“It’s comparing apples to oranges,” he says. “You’re looking at 45 minutes of cycling at a pretty good effort compared to four sets of seven reps of a leg press and extension. It’s like comparing someone walking for 20 minutes to someone else doing a CrossFit workout for an hour—it’s not even close to the same thing.”
The best kind of resistance training, Matheny says, are moves that “work a lot of muscles at once,” like squats and other bodyweight exercises.
Overall, when it comes to finding the right exercise program for you, experts recommend aiming for some variation—including both endurance and resistance exercises.
“Mix it up with different activities to keep the interest up and prevent overuse injuries,” Pivarnik says.